‘Why Not Us: Southern Dance’ Makes the Case for Black Dancers as the Original Influencers

The women of HBCU dance lines have long shaped mainstream pop culture. The ESPN+ series returns to give them the hype and credit they're owed.

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‘Why Not Us: Southern Dance’ Makes the Case for Black Dancers as the Original Influencers
Photo:Why Not Us: Southern Dance/ESPN+; Getty Images

Kayla Pittman, an alumna of Louisiana’s Southern University and a professional dancer featured in Beyoncé’s Homecoming, is somewhat of a celebrity among HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities). Her dance style has been described as “milky,” though it’s hard to accurately capture the silky refrains and sharp shifts in words. The oozing texture of honey comes close, but then again, honey lacks Pittman’s bravado. Perhaps words escape because the way Pittman sews, stitching together delicacy, sexuality, and hip-hop in one routine, is a singular product of Southern University and the organization that made Pittman the dancer she is today: the Fabulous Dancing Dolls.

Steeped in nostalgia and femme-presenting poise, the Dancing Dolls, arguably the most prolific and widely known amongst university dance lines, are the subject of the new series Why Not Us: Southern Dance, premiering on August 11 on ESPN+. Southern University is featured in the third season of Why Not Us—executive produced by NBA player Chris Paul—which chronicles the beauty and influence of HBCU culture. The second season featured Florida A&M University’s football team, and the show now finds itself in mirrored rehearsal rooms where Dr. Akai Smith, the coach of the Dolls, must assemble a team of athletes who comprise HBCU lore in their own right.

While Why Not Us: Southern Dance closely resembles the competitive edge and high emotional stakes of Netflix’s Cheer, its focus on the deeply embedded Black artistry in HBCU culture—and, really, popular culture at large—is without modern-day comparison. Just as the heroes of any sporting league win the affection of fans and daydreamers alike, the young women at the center of this show will quickly earn the respect and adoration of viewers. But this time, unlike many dancers before them, they won’t be chronicled as a gimmick or a sideline distraction. They’re the main event.

Viewers are greeted with a perfume cloud of captivating stage presence, cropped white gloves, leopard print leotards, and glittery capes. The Dolls are an elaborately coiffed presentation of Black hyper-femininity, literally “dolled up” in high-waisted briefs and feather-bedazzled bra tops. Not a single forced smile to be found. But the women are also regarded as athletes and are initiated into an extreme, pressure-cooker environment in which the prospective Dolls put their childhood dreams on the line, hoping to join the ranks of the best HBCU dance line.

The women of HBCU dance lines have long been setting pop culture trends, but are only just beginning to garner the widespread attention, hype, and credit they deserve. Beyonce’s 2018 Coachella performance and accompanying Netflix documentary Homecoming brought the attitude and command of hip-hop majorettes and dance lines to the forefront of musical culture. Lizzo has featured the Dancing Dolls in music videos filmed on HBCU campuses. And Dancing Dolls alumna Kiara Ely went on to perform in and co-choreograph the Nick Cannon film Drumline; danced alongside iconic artists like Nicki Minaj, John Legend, Missy Elliott, and Lil Kim; and choreographed stage performances for Ciara, Janelle Monae, Ludacris, TLC, and Christina Aguilera. But misogynoir around Black feminine aesthetics have downplayed and ignored the outsized influence these artists have on mainstream culture.

“Everyone always says that this team must be influenced by something, but I always provoke people to think about us being the influencers. The Dolls are not just a group of girls that are pretty, they’re not just what you see on Saturday,” she said. “These girls are so talented that I would do them a disservice by saying that they’re influenced by Black culture. They are the influencers. Dance is really just the platform that opens them up to a world of being successful women, and ultimately, that is Black culture.”

A member of Southern University’s “Fabulous Dancing Dolls” marches out of the stadium after a game at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Ft. Worth, TX. Photo:Getty Images

For all the force and ease with which Smith, the coach, commands a room of ambitious women in their teens and early 20s, she is, in no way, a camera person. “Anybody that worked on the show with me knows that every time you turn around, I was trying to run from the camera,” she told Jezebel in a phone interview. But that certainly doesn’t stop her from becoming an endearing, forward-facing character in the series, or from trumpeting her pride for the “Black girl magic” of her dancers.

“People today want to know what it’s like to attend an HBCU, what the experience is like, what Black culture is like, the dance teams and the marching bands,” she said of the recent fervor to lionize HBCUs, the first of which was established in 1837. “The trend is ongoing, and everybody now wants to have a piece of it.”

HBCU dance lines emerged in the 1960s, a natural evolution from the majorettes or baton twirlers who performed alongside each school’s marching band. By the ’70s, the already rich culture around homecoming halftime performances—with its camp, fringe, and sequins—was enlivened by the emergence of dance lines, whose style combined classic marching techniques with “lyrical, West African, jazz, contemporary, and hip-hop choreography,” according to BuzzFeed’s Frederick McKindra. While some schools adopted the hip-hop-based “bucking,” the Dancing Dolls ushered in what McKindra calls an era of smooth, balletic, and “prissy” movements, famed for “slow body rolls,” graceful attitude leaps, and stand counts in the bleachers.

Founded in 1969 to accompany Southern University’s marching band, the Human Jukebox, that milky, contemporary influence is stamped in the very DNA of the Dolls, Dr. Smith says. Then-band director Isaac Greggs, who created the Dolls, was a huge fan of the Rockettes, known for their drill team style. He wanted that same precision in Southern’s majorettes.

“Everyone always says that this team must be influenced by something, but I always provoke people to think about us being the influencers.

“Miss Gracie Perkins [the first team advisor] made that vision come to life,” Smith said. “She has always instilled in us that if you’re not anything else, you’re gonna be clean, and you gotta be classy.”

Smith said that it was Perkins who insisted the original eight Dolls be so much more than clean dancers, infusing the team with “pizzazz.” After NBC Sports first broadcast the Bayou Class in New Orleans in 1991—the annual homecoming showdown between the Grambling State University Tigers and the Southern University Jaguars—the Dolls became nationally famous in the collegiate dance landscape and haven’t budged since.

Photo:Why Not Us: Southern Dance/ESPN+

Throughout the audition process, the women are carefully scrutinized by a panel of judges—all former Dolls. The athletes are scanned for technique and potential as they perform their audition routine about “50,000 times,” one teammate jokes. Several are admonished for wearing the wrong color lipstick (bright red over dark red, always). The judges don’t want the girls to feel bad about their choices, Smith said; rather, they want them to understand that the Dancing Dolls cannot be duplicated. “We have to educate them on the traditions that come before us,” she said. “It wasn’t ours to give, and so it’s not ours to change.”

While speaking about the team, Smith evokes the sense of a lioness protecting her cubs. There’s a moment in the first episode of the show in which she speaks directly to the young women she’s cutting from auditions, asking them to keep training and come back next year—a gesture uncommon in the dance world (dancers must often wait for an email or call from an assistant director). After dismissing the women—including three women who had been on the team the year before—she momentarily loses her buttoned-up countenance, stepping aside to a hallway to cry before collecting herself once more. When asked why she had gotten so emotional during a routine part of the process, she recalled being cut the first year she tried out for the Dolls decades ago.

“Making sure they’re comfortable with themselves is so important to me, because I, too, was a dancer that had low self-esteem, that wasn’t encouraged, that wasn’t highlighted,” she said. “I want to make sure that no matter what their dance background is, no matter the decision, that they understand they’re important, regardless of what the world says about them.”

ESPN’s Jalaine Edwards, a producer on the series, also acknowledged in an interview that this was the first time in her 17 years of working at the sports juggernaut that she’d been involved in a program chronicling dance. She hopes viewers understand that this isn’t just a show for dancers: It’s a show about sports.

“I think everyone can see themselves in these girls, whether it’s the competition, whether it’s dealing with adversity, or being away from home for the first time,” she said. “I just wanted to see little girls who look like me on TV, and now I do.”

Photo:Why Not Us: Southern Dance/ESPN+

Historically having suffered from its allegiance to effeminate styles of movement, the battle for dance to be recategorized as an athletic endeavor is only just beginning. So that a sports media conglomerate has chosen to highlight a dance team in an original series just one season after highlighting the FAMU football team is an urgent association for viewers—that we can discuss both sports as equally grueling in the same breath.

During covid, dance teams across the nation found themselves trapped in battles for resources and budget, stuck somewhere between poorly funded competitive sports teams and amateur student clubs. Smith, too, said she fights this battle “every day.” The Dolls, a designated part of the marching band, practice similar hours to the football and men’s and women’s basketball teams, but do not have access to the same athletic scholarships. While she acknowledges most HBCUs are strapped for cash, she’s exhausted from having to advocate for her athletes.

“It’s a tragedy that we don’t acknowledge dance as a sport, but I am glad that the girls don’t believe what people are saying anymore,” she said. “They don’t believe that they’re not athletes anymore. They don’t believe that they’re just there to be pretty. They know how hard they work, and they know how much time and effort goes into what people see on a Saturday night.”

In rehearsal rooms, as many dancers know, young women are tested and molded, as they fight through rejection, stave off insecurities, and figure out who they want to be. They learn consistency, dedication, and the importance of self-carriage: how to interact with a world that, despite its best promises, does not see them as equal. But a series like this is a start. And as long as Smith has something to do with it, the Dancing Dolls will be seen, acknowledged, and respected.

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